Passive voice with intransitive verbs?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by losilmer, Nov 28, 2008.

  1. losilmer

    losilmer Senior Member

    I want to know for sure if the passive voice can only occur with transitive verbs, or if there could be some cases of passive voice with intransitive verbs.
    For instance, in "I was come home yesterday". Is that passive voice or not.
    I think that this is not passive voice. Am I correct?
  2. IDK Senior Member

    Texas, United States
    Amr English
    I'm not 100% sure, but I believe you must have a transitive verb for the passive voice to work. Only transitive verbs have direct objects.

    "I was come home yesterday" is grammatically wrong. To come is intransitive, so the sentence should be: "I came home yesterday."
  3. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    The passive is not possible with intransitive verbs, losilmer.

    If you have come across "be" with a past participle of intransitive verbs, this reflects an older construction in which it was possible to make the present perfect with "be", rather than "have".

    Remnants of this construction exist today.
  4. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    IDK can be 100% sure about this; only transitive verbs have direct objects, and passive verbs take the direct object of the active transitive form as their subject.

    "I was come home yesterday" is incorrect in modern English, as IDK says. At one time, forms of "to be" were used to form the perfect tenses (where we now use forms of "have"). At that time, "I was come home" would have been equivalent to "I had come home". It would not then be a passive but a past perfect active form.

    [Loob posted as I was writing this. It seems we agree.]
  5. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    The verb "to go" retains these remnants with some unusual implications. As you know, "to go" is primarily used intransitively. In this case it can be used with a passive or perfect construction:
    He has gone.
    He is gone.
    The meanings are slightly different, however. "To have gone" pretty much means the present perfect as you'd expect:
    • He has gone to the store and will be back shortly.
    • They have gone to lunch.
    • They have gone and are flying home right now.
    "To be gone" implies permanence:
    • He is gone. He died of a heart attack last month.
    • We divorced and now she is gone.
    • They are gone and are flying home right now.
      (Note above that "have gone" may be used here as well. "Are gone" emphasizes the fact that their visit is over.)
    Remember that "is" and "has" contract the same way ("he's gone") so naturally in this case we have to infer the auxiliary verb from context.

    Strangely, you cannot use "to go" passively in its transitive sense ("to traverse") precisely because "to be gone" has acquired this special meaning. In other words, you can say:
    He went twenty miles to find a good Italian restaurant.
    But you cannot say:
    *Twenty miles was gone to find a good Italian restaurant. :cross:
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2008
  6. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I was interested in this because in languages where impersonal passives are grammatically acceptable, like Norwegian or Dutch, for instance, this link between transitivity and the passive voice doesn't hold.

    In Norwegian, I am led to understand, you can say the equivalent of:

    There were frightened twenty reindeer outside the house this morning by us.

    In English we convert active to passive with transitive verbs by the familiar process:

    I saw him - he was seen by me
    We love her - she is loved by us

    With intransitive verbs this doesn't work:

    I walked to the station:tick: - the station was walked to by me:cross:

    If however you have a language where you can say:

    There was walked to by me the station

    it becomes possible to use passives with intransitive verbs. The fact that such sentences are ungrammatical now in English is at the heart of the link between passives and transitive verbs.

    I found Salsamore's post very interesting on this, but

    I would prefer to say that it often suggests permanence. I think there are occasions where people use an expression like 'I am come' to dramatise their arrival, not to suggest that they are here to stay for ever. For instance that bit of Launcelot Andrewes I quoted recently, about the Magi:

    It is not commended to stand gazing up to heaven too long; not on Christ Himself ascending, much less on His star. For they sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey. Venimus is soon said, but a short word; but many a wide and weary step they made before they could come to say venimus; lo, here we are come; come, and at our journey's end.

    My point is that they may be at their journey's end, but they aren't here to stay.
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2008
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The transformation from active to passive involves making the object of the active sentence the subject of the passive sentence.
    Intransitive verbs do not have objects so converting an intransitive sentence to passive would result in a sentence without a subject.
    Can you have a sentence with no subject?
  8. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Morning Panj.

    I should have been clearer.

    As I understand it there are languages where impersonal passive constructions are grammatically acceptable, like several European languages (Dutch, German, Norwegian, Venetian dialect, for instance).

    In these languages you can say, to mean the same thing, two different sentences:

    1. I saw you.
    2. It was seen you by me.

    In English only 1. works and the familiar active/passive transformation demands a transitive verb: I saw you/you were seen by me.

    In those languages where 2. is acceptable the passive can be constructed with intransitive verbs: I went to the station/it was gone to the station by me.

    The lost subject which you are seeking is the impersonal it or there.
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2008
  9. losilmer

    losilmer Senior Member

    Elaborating a bit on this issue, I came across a Grammar by Kittredge and Farley, stating that "an intransitive verb followed by a preposition is often used in the passive, the object of the preposition becoming the subject of the verb. Exs. Everybody laughed at him.~ He was laughed at by everybody.--- The cart ran over me~I was run over by the cart. And also with verbs like talk about, look or inquire into, look upon, object to, act upon, etc.
    So, now, I am somewhat bewildered. What is the truth?
  10. Salsamore

    Salsamore Senior Member

    USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
    In English, it's common to treat these so-called "phrasal verbs" as "pseudo-transitive" (my terminology) for the purpose of casting them into the passive. I'll try to demonstrate this graphically. The general formula for turning the active voice into the passive is:
    Active: [subject(#)] [verb(*)] [direct object(+)]
    Passive: [orig. D.O.(+)] is/was/etc. [orig. verb(*)]-ed by [orig. subj.(#)]
    I use -ed here to indicate the past participle. Using this formula on one of the K&F examples:
    The cart ran over me.
    [The cart] [ran over] [me].
    [I] was [ran over]-ed by [the cart].
    I was run over by the cart.
    In other words: For the purpose of recasting the sentence into the passive, the phrasal verb "to run over" is treated as a single unit and "me" is treated as its "direct object." (Note that many strict grammarians consider this construction improper but nevertheless such usage is almost universal.)
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2008
  11. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    English - British
    Yes. Those are valid examples. The reference seems to be p. 111 of An advanced English grammar, with exercises George Lyman Kittredge, Frank Edgar Farley - 1972.

    The construction is used with some intransitive verbs and not others, but the distinction does not seem to depend on whether it is a phrasal verb.

    A more recent treatment discusses why the construction works with some verbs and not others.
    English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation By Beth Levin - 1993
    Criteria that have been advanced include whether the intransitive verb is 'unergative' and whether it is 'unaccusative'.
    Last edited: May 7, 2013

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